Epistolary

17 January 2010

Letters received in Jaén, 2008-09.

“A succession of days is like a box of new envelopes. Each envelope is flimsy and can be treated as two-dimensional. But when you pull out all the envelopes from the box at once, there is a hard place in the middle — a thick lump — that you wouldn’t expect envelopes to have. The lump is created by the intersection of the four triangles in the middle of the back … as you reach around and squeeze them you feel the nugget, something that isn’t in the envelopes but is of the envelopes. I would almost say that there is a hint on the meaning of life there, in that revealed kernel.”

— The wonderful Nicholson Baker, A Box of Matches

Daily accumulation, considered after a certain amount of time, feels so much & so viscerally like Baker thumbing his stack of envelopes that it’s almost enough to dumbly contemplate the sensation — but instead, as someone who writes to account for his days rather than remembering them himself, I’d like to take Baker a little too literally, as I did one day in the summer when I took the stack of letters I’d received in Spain over nine months & spread them out on the carpet — envelopes, true, though hardly a box of new ones.

Letters, too, are flimsy things & antiquated, surprising in their accumulation, like snowdrifts. They’ve been written about in enough praise & nostalgia that I’m not sure what I can add except for Me, too. But because I like certain antiquated things, probably to a fault, and to a degree that looks like affectation, I wanted to work out for myself here what I like about letters, what I find particularly gladdening about being able to take a photograph like this one, about having an accumulation like this to take away with me from Jaén.

We write letters, in part, because we want to receive letters; an unanswered letter, while a nice gesture in & of itself, is a bit orphaned. Letters are a dialogue or a mutual flattery, a tap on the shoulder: Here I am. I remember you. But then, so is an email. Friends post on each others’ facebook walls instead of sending private messages in part to demonstrate not just for each other but onstage, for everyone else, the fact of their friendship. And letters are far less efficient than emails, which is why they’ve been overtaken entirely for anything practical.

Letters are impractical, but partly for that reason, for the extravagance of effort they represent, they’re things we can become excited about. When was the last time you were excited to receive an email?

Letters, too, have to be opened. Envelopes, stamped & addressed, handwritten or typed, in different colors & thicknesses of papers, stained or weathered, affixed with the seals & marks of different nations, handled & passed along, are aesthetic objects. Inside, the letter itself can be held, tucked inside a coat pocket, touched, carried with us. Handwritten correspondence implies pen to paper — we can see our friend’s letters dilate & contract, the words wander, the lines speed up & slow down. My own handwriting starts out small & crabbed and then begins to get bigger and rounder as I forget to concentrate & get carried away, sometimes by a factor of three or more. I myself don’t have particularly good or nice-looking handwriting, and it’s not as though people are routinely trained in copperplate today, but I don’t have to argue  that handwriting is necessarily pretty in order to make the point that it breathes. Typewritten correspondence looks attractive for the same reason that designers like vintage typefaces on their restaurant menus, and if this seems shallow it’s because I’m resisting the temptation to describe typewriting as objectively beautiful, even though I find it so. Run your hands against the back of a typewritten letter & too, unlike a laser printer, you can feel the nubbled imprint of the typeface on the paper, which has been imprinted, with a typeface whose imprecisions & smudges of carbon are unique to it, are a fingerprint as much as handwriting.

This is all to say, that letters might be nice things to receive even if they didn’t actually say anything, just for their incidental qualities — a colored envelope, the weight of stationary, my own name & yours on the same surface, the street names of places different than our own, the vagaries of handwriting. But apart from this, for me, is that letters, more than anything else I’ve hit upon, are a way to continue to have meaningful or interesting or personal conversations with people who, given the sort of things I’ve decided to do with my young adulthood, I may not see for years.

Some people prefer the telephone, & I can’t fault them, but aside from my own logistical disadvantages — the cost of an international call, the time difference — telephones require not just that both people to set aside time for each other, but that they set aside the same time. Now that everyone has mobile phones, it’s more likely they’ll be crossing the street or dancing salsa or at a concert than an home in an armchair, and anyway, cell phones, unlike landlines, cut out the bottom frequencies of the human voice & feature inferior sound quality, so that it’s harder now to imagine that you’re speaking to each other in the same room or hear exactly what they might be feeling, and so instead one’s unsure whether the person is impatient with you or not, or in the awkward position of wanting to talk with someone but being in a place where conversation is difficult or constrained, or riding a city bus.

I write things in letters I might never say otherwise, because aside from envelopes & stationary, a letter is a very particular kind of suspension of time, a deferral of intimacy. You are writing with the expectation not that you’ll have to look the person in the eye, as it were, as soon as you say what you have to say, but that instead in a week, or two weeks, the person you know, who could be in any kind of situation, will receive your letter & put it aside to read when they’d like to read it, when they have a quiet moment they can carve out for themselves, sitting at the kitchen table or later that night before they go to sleep or on the bus while they ride to wherever they’re going, and letters are usually written in those same quiet moments of isolation carved out from the busy, endless chatter of our days. I think I might even go so far as to say that letters, no matter how pedestrian, fulfill Wordsworth’s forever reused definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” You can of course write in haste, in rage, in surprise, but all of this is muted by the act of posting a letter, which is to take something and seal it up and address & stamp it, all the while perhaps reconsidering what you’ve written, and finally to cast it into something shaped very much like a trash can & forget about it for half a month, and I think this changes the way that we write to begin with, having to think about your sentences being read in an unknown and indeterminate future, as though preparing a paper time capsule.

(I find, incidentally, that after a week with the novel I’m unconsciously imitating the voice of Javier Marías’ narrator in Corazón tan blanco. My sentences unspool, become nostalgic, baroque, circular things, self-reinforcing. I shouldn’t have said before that the long sentence was the organizational unit of the novel — it’s the paragraph, which just happens to often consist of just one or two long, circling, self-emending sentences, teasing something out until it’s just about exhausted itself.)

And letters, because of the delay & the way they replicate, become an ongoing conversation with another person, something that can be picked up every few weeks and continued. Correspondences have their own internal logic, their own moods & subjects & natural resting places. A letter out of the blue written at a particular time is very much the same no matter who you write it to — indeed, it’s impossible for me to write more than two or three in a day without feeling like I’m on the verge of inventing a form letter for the date in question. But a correspondence is a unit of time composed of widely space days, usually fewer than we would have liked. It is, to take the word as excessively literally as I’ve taken Baker’s metaphor, a kind of congruence, a rhyming counterpoint, the creation of similarities. Fine — this is perhaps a conceit. But if nothing else, it leaves you with artifacts, with tangible proof of the time you’ve spent out in the world, even if it is only proof of the parts of it you spent in solitude & quiet, and only (unless we, like Proust, make carbon copies of our outgoing letters in preparation for their future publication) the parts of it told to you, not the parts you’ve told back. The slowly changing addresses of friends, because anybody my age moves repeatedly. A collection of days, which upon holding stacked we can imagine as creating a feeling not in the correspondence but of it, an accumulation of envelopes, a thick lump.

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